Basharat Peer’s Curfewed Night is an extraordinary book of a Kashmir in extraordinary times. And Peer has, with this one book, established himself as one of the most talented voices from Kashmir. A Kashmiri, Peer went to school in the valley, then to Aligarh Muslim University, and finally to Columbia University in the City of New York. Through the years outside the valley, Peer travels back to Kashmir even as he reports for a variety of publications. Curfewed Night is, in essence, the story of the valley of the Nineties as only a Kashmiri could tell it. It is the prose equivalent of the lyrical masterpiece,Country without a Post Office, by the Kashmiri poet, Agha Shahid Ali. As Ali once wrote: “The city from which no news can come/ is now so visible in its curfewed night/ that the worst is precise.// From Zero Bridge/ a shadow chased by searchlight is running/ away to find its body.// On the edge of the Cantonment, where Gupkar Road ends,/ it shrinks almost into nothing, is nothing,/ by Interrogation gates,/ so it can slip, unseen, into the cells:// Drippings from a suspended burning tyre/ are falling on the back of a prisoner/ the naked boy screaming,/ ‘I know nothing.’”
It is this sentiment that is echoed by Peer in the many stories woven together inCurfewed Night. The book works at multiple levels, and it is this mix of reportage, political analysis and personal memoir that makes it refreshingly different from other contemporary writings on Kashmir. It will, however, invite predictable controversy for the overarching political subtext (to deliberately mix metaphors). But Curfewed Night is also sure to win acclaim for the definitive “insider’s” glimpse into today’s Kashmir.
As a teenager growing up in the Kashmir of the Nineties, Peer was a witness to arguably the most troubling period in the valley’s modern history. Anecdotal and autobiographical, Curfewed Night brilliantly captures the troubled times as, I repeat, only a Kashmiri would do. The idealistic, romantic surge for aazadi of the early Nineties finds a glimpse in the following evocative passage: “The protest gathered momentum. Voices that were reluctant and low in the beginning became firm and loud… New chants were created and improvised. A young man raised an arm towards a group of women watching the procession from a communal tap and shouted, ‘Our mothers demand!’ The crowd responded: ‘Aazadi!’
“He repeated: ‘Our sisters demand!’ The crowd: ‘Aazadi!’ A rush of adrenaline shot through me and I marched ahead of my friends and joined the leaders of the procession. Somebody, who was carrying his young son on his shoulder, shouted: ‘Our children demand!’ ‘Aazadi’ resonated through the village… Throughout the winter, almost every Kashmiri man was a Farhaad, ready to dig a stream of milk from the mountains for a rendezvous with his Shireen: freedom!”
Curfewed Night is also a powerful evocation of stories and anecdotes about real individuals, groups and places that are part of everyday Kashmir. The “pro-government” militant, Kuka Parray, Parveena Ahangar of the Association of the Parents of the Disappeared, the prominent separatist leaders, militant groups and the scores of others that make and mar the political and social landscape of Kashmir.
Take Papa-2, an erstwhile guest house of Maharajah Hari Singh on the Zabarwan hills overlooking the Dal Lake. Papa-2 was a dreaded BSF interrogation centre for most of the first years of the Nineties: “The worst part was the psychological torture. They would make us say Jai Hind every morning and evening. They beat you if you refused… They took you out to the lawns outside the building. You were asked to remove all your clothes, even your underwear. They tied you to a long wooden ladder and placed it near a ditch filled with kerosene oil and red chilli powder. They raised the ladder like a seesaw and pushed your head into the ditch… At times, they would not undress you but tie you to the ladder. You almost felt relieved until they tied your pants near the ankles and put mice inside.”
In 1996, the then chief secretary of Jammu and Kashmir, Cambridge-educated and brilliant, called priests of all religions to pray there and exorcise what might have been the ‘ghosts’ of the people killed there during interrogation. And, thereafter, promptly occupied Papa-2. Today, Papa-2 is Fairview Guest House, one of the most well appointed residences in Kashmir. Such a metamorphosis could only take place in Kashmir.
In Peer’s many journeys to Kashmir, “two words had remained omnipresent: whether it was a feast or a funeral, a visit to a destroyed shrine or a redeemed torture chamber, a story about a stranger or about my own life, a poem or a painting, two words always made their presence felt: militants and soldiers. They had shadowed every life I wrote about including my own. Yet they remained ghost-like presences.”
By an extraordinary coincidence, a day after reading Curfewed Night, I spoke to Peer’s father, a senior civil servant. I told him that I had read the book. His response was predictably bureaucratic: “He has tried to balance everything.” I had to almost shout: “It is not balanced, it is brilliant.” And yes, Curfewed Night succeeds because it does not pretend to be objective or balanced.
(Source: The Telegraph, 12/12/08)